Libya: Gaddafi regime’s last loyalists are negotiating their release from prison

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Monday, 4 July 2022 16:29

Abdallah Senoussi, Gaddafi's former military intelligence chief, during his trial on 20 April 2015 in Tripoli © Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency via AFP

Armed and hooded men block the road leading to the largest prison in western Libya, next to Mitiga airport on the outskirts of Tripoli. Behind its high white walls, an entire block is reserved for its most famous prisoner, Abdallah Senoussi. “He is treated like a VIP and regularly examined by his private doctors,” a prison guard says.

Separated from the other – often mistreated – inmates, the 73-year-old ex-dignitary can move freely between several barracks, according to the young guard interviewed after his shift several dozen kilometres away. Senoussi even has the privilege of sharing the meals served to the head guards of the RADA Special Deterrence Forces, the powerful Salafist militia – headed by Abdel Raouf Kara – that controls the Mitiga area.

Senoussi, Muammar Gaddafi’s former head of military intelligence, has been negotiating his release for several months. He is one of the last of Gaddafi’s men still behind bars since the release of several former ministers and Gaddafi’s sons.

In 2019, RADA was entrusted with the custody of this leader that the Gaddafi regime chose to handle the dirty work, the organiser of the attack that killed 170 passengers on the UTA DC-10 flight in 1989, for which French justice sentenced him – in absentia – to life imprisonment.

This is the third faction in charge of Gaddafi’s brother-in-law (nicknamed the ‘Butcher’) since his capture and imprisonment in 2012.

His treatment has not always been so royal. During his first years in Hadhaba prison, Senoussi was in the hands of the former Islamist prisoners who had been detained during the Gaddafi dictatorship. They became the jailers after the Colonel’s fall in 2011. In an ironic role reversal, Senoussi was the one beaten and placed in solitary confinement for months.

A ‘bargaining chip’

A decade later, there is no longer any question of revenge. “We are using him as a bargaining chip,” says a RADA guard, speaking on condition of anonymity. In short, the militia that detains – and keeps healthy – one of the last and most powerful chiefs of the Gaddafi regime is using him to maintain its influence within the Libyan security apparatus.

With 2,000 men, RADA managed to obtain $28.3m from the Government of National Unity (GNU) in 2021, three times more than its other armed competitors in the capital.

Placed under the authority of the presidential council, RADA has never had to worry about its multiple murders or kidnappings denounced by the UN and non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International. RADA’s militia also have front-row seats in the ongoing negotiations to free Senoussi. In return for the potential loss of their trophy, they have demanded a ministry or diplomatic posts.

For its part, the judiciary already gave its green light to Senoussi’s release more than a year ago. On 27 May 2021, the Libyan Supreme Court overturned his death sentence, which had been handed down in 2015 by Tripoli’s criminal court. The high court ordered a retrial for Senoussi and the 37 other officials indicted at the sham trial during the 2011 rebellion crackdown.

Senoussi is still being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. He is also a key witness in the case of the illicit financing of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Senoussi’s lawyer, Ibrahim Abou Aïsha, and his daughter, Sarah, are arguing for his conditional release because of his chronic health problems and the age limit for detention set at 70 by Libyan law, but so far, these legal arguments have not been enough.

Negotiations

According to several people close to Senoussi, the negotiations accelerated in the spring, at the initiative of GNU Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba. The prime minister has been searching for more legitimacy since Fathi Bashagha formed a parallel government and joined rebel leader Khalifa Haftar’s rival camp at the beginning of the year.

Last May, the Tripoli-based Dabaiba met with notables from the Magarha tribe, from which Senoussi is descended and of which he is one of the most influential figures. The community is powerful in Fezzan, a vast region in southern Libya, partly under the control of forces loyal to Haftar.

The objective of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba is to co-opt these central figures of the former regime because they have a social base and economic weight that can serve him in the competition for power

According to the Facebook page ‘Libya First’, run by supporters of the former regime, the former intelligence chief could be released and sent to Benghazi, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates on condition that Magarha representatives show outspoken support for Dabaiba.

Similar negotiations are underway to find an agreement to release two other loyal Gaddafi lieutenants who followed him right up to his fatal exit in October 2011: former head of internal security Mansour Daou, detained in Misrata alongside the main leader of the revolutionary committees and former minister, Ahmed Ibrahim. They are two valuable prisoners who have been sentenced to death. And, like Senoussi, they were at the heart of the secrets and relationships forged on the international scene during the 42 years of Gaddafi rule.

Horse-trading

“The objective of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba is to co-opt these central figures of the former regime because they have a social base and economic weight that can serve him in the competition for power,” says Libya specialist Virginie Collombier.

That tactic is not new. As early as 2014, when the civil war broke out between east and west, the two competing governments “raced to broaden their bases and find support among the partisans of the former regime, who had been marginalised or even excluded from the game until then”, says Collombier, a professor at Rome’s Luiss University.

Some joined the UN-recognised government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, while others joined the ranks of Haftar’s army in the east. The amnesty law passed in 2015 by the Tobruk parliament allows for the release of dozens of Gaddafi allies who did not commit crimes during the revolution.

Of the 37 cadres from the Jamahiriya party, which also referred to the Libyan state when Gaddafi ruled it from 1977-2011, convicted in 2015, most were eventually released, even though they were charged with killing protesters. One of the first on the list was Gaddafi’s son and would-be successor, Seif el-Islam, who was under house arrest in Zintan until 2017. Still being prosecuted by the ICC, he only reappeared in the Libyan political scene in late 2021 to announce his candidacy for the presidential election – a vote that had been scheduled for 24 December and was cancelled without a new date being set.

Race for Gaddafi supporters

Seif’s younger brother, Saadi Gaddafi, 48, was acquitted in 2018 for the murder of a former football coach, but released only three years later, on 5 September 2021. His release was one of the objectives of Justice Minister Halima el-Busifi, a former judge, close to Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, and a strong supporter of reconciliation with members of the former regime. However, it was the pressure of the Turkish authorities on the groups in the revolutionary city of Misrata that helped open the locks on his cell.

The next day, Saadi boarded a private jet for Istanbul. On arrival, he was offered accommodation and medical care to heal from the after-effects of the torture he suffered in detention, according to a source close to the family. The former Libyan footballer has reportedly not left his luxury Turkish residence since then.

By recovering one of Gaddafi’s three surviving heirs, Turkey has scored a point for the Dabaiba camp, of which it remains the most important sponsor. The aim is to weaken Haftar as well as the influence of his ally, Egypt, the main host and supporter of the Gaddafi old guard in exile.

In this competition win over former Gaddafi allies, the regime’s ‘black box’ and former chief of staff, Ahmed Ramadan, has chosen to remain silent. Released a fortnight after Saadi, he returned to his village of Al-Assaba, in the Nafousa Mountains, south of Tripoli, where the emissaries of Seif el-Islam as well as Haftar have attempted to secure his support.

The former head of external security and ex-prime minister Abuzaïd Dorda supported the  Haftar camp. Dorda met him in Egypt after his release in February 2019. However, Dorda died in Cairo on 28 February 2022 at the age of 77.

For his part, former prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, 77, first chose to join the group of refugees in Egypt, before emigrating to the United Arab Emirates, according to a Libyan security source, where he stays out of politics.

His former cellmate, former officer Abdallah Mansour, has remained in detention since his extradition from Niger in 2014.

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